Digging in for the winter

Could there be a more boring photo than three Ball preserving jars in a pressure pan? I’ve always thought of cooking as a rampart against creeping despair and, curiously enough I was comparing notes with one of our (chef) sons and he felt exactly the same way. It turned out we’d both been spending hours at the stove, and both of us fighting off the onset of November.

Madame has been pining – well I have too – missing any real contact with our sons and grandchildren and so, with the prospect of another big lockdown in our minds we grabbed a chance of sharing a socially distanced walk with them. It was hammering down with rain, and the footpaths were nightmarishly slippery but we were all so overjoyed to see one another we’d have walked over embers to be there. Later we finished up at their allotment and they’re experiencing the same kind of thing as us. Their allotment site too was alive with activity during the furlough, and now as people have returned to work the plots are rapidly reverting to grassland. We found a cleared plot in exactly that condition, and in the middle was an apple tree groaning with fruit, and with dozens of windfalls on the ground surrounding it. None were being harvested and so we gathered up a couple of carrier bags of windfalls and took them to our respective kitchens. I should have photographed them, but we’re pretty sure they are Newton Wonder – a cooking variety that’s quite the equal of a Bramley in flavour but extremely vigorous. The fruits were very large too and we set too, peeled and chopped them and, after a small trial batch, added a little lemon juice, clove, a cinnamon stick and about a quarter pint of elderflower cordial with a bit more water. The apples took up rather more fluid then a Bramley would have done. And that was it – after 10 minutes in the pressure cooker to sterilize them they’ll go into store along with all the other preserves – six 750g jars in all.

The question of food security was on my mind today because an email arrived from a young friend in Guatemala, full of concern for her UK parents. And I think she’s entirely right to be concerned because the initial stages of the lockdown were marked by a collapse in food distribution here, with long queues and empty shelves everywhere. If, as we fear, the UK leaves Europe without a trade agreement things will get much worse, and with a gathering worldwide economic depression there’s a general feeling that the present economic structure has reached an impasse; greedily consuming far more resources than the earth can provide. I constantly want to shout out – “There’s no Seventh Cavalry about to charge over the hill and save us!” – like they used to do in the Westerns. I’m a very reluctant revolutionary, but – we don’t have decades for politicians to try to find ways of appearing radical while doing nothing.

I know I often quote poetry or poets here, but that’s because when they’re good they manage to cut through all the verbiage and tell it like it is. Recently I’ve been reading Louis MacNeice’s “Autumn Journal” and it affects me so much I tried to read a section to Madame the other day and scared the living daylights out of her by bursting into tears. MacNeice was writing about that period in 1939 that’s become known as the phony war; the months when nothing was actually happening but the tsunami was gathering strength just across the channel in Europe, and people were so desperately hoping that the politicians could lead the country back to something that looked and felt normal. That’s how it feels here right now, and I’ve no confidence that there is the leadership we need here to address the hydra headed monster of covid; economic and social collapse plus an impending ecological disaster. Only a new vision will do and it’s nowhere to be seen.

So we cook, and store, and get our gardens and allotments ready for a new season. We pine for our distanced families and friends and lay in stores and playlists of films and music to console us and remind us that although we may be deeply flawed – “glorious ruins” as one theologian described humanity; we are capable of being glorious, creative and loving to one another. November has broken in our hearts before its appointed time and this first week of Greenwich Mean Time has been as mean as hell.

But we harvested some rather lovely fennel, and the resident heron along the river obliged us by posing rather miserably in the rain and in a brief appearance by the sun the trees in Henrietta Park we remembered that this is – or can be – one of the most beautiful seasons of the year. And, of course, there’s about ten pounds of stewed Newton Wonder apples to raid in the February lean times.

Barely ten yards from where I’m sitting

 

That doesn’t mean that technique isn’t important  – it’s everything!

Every summer, as soon as the solstice passes and the nights begin to lengthen I know that I’ll resolve once again to capture the intensity of these colours in a painting.  I did it  today as I wandered around the garden of our borrowed cottage and photographed some of the wild fruits growing here.  The trickiest subject by far was the hawthorn tree which resisted every attempt to capture its brilliance against the blue sky.  Painting is a very tactile experience, from the texture of the paper, the sensation of freedom in a running line and the intense concentration of mixing and applying colour.  The smell of the paint, even the resistance, heft and suppleness of a good brush can be exciting, as can the accidental granularity of the paint as it spreads on the rough surface of good paper.

But talk is cheap and whereas I can write easily,  painting doesn’t come naturally at all. I have an uncompleted painting of a hyacinth that’s three years old, alongside a folder full of drawings, tracings and macro-photos but still it defeats me. The intoxicating complexity of the petals, lit as they are from every angle around the stem; their intense waxy blue; the stiff lanceolate leaves with their almost invisible longitudinal grooves make the process of painting into a profound and humbling experience. Far from envisaging the artistic process as flowing from an exceptionally gifted mind to the paper, I’ve come to see it as a challenge from the subject – the plant, flower or whatever – to the artist; an act of discovery through enchantment. Any kind of ego is an absolute barrier to understanding, and the greatest moments in my creative life have been more like meditations in which I am able to step aside and allow the work to happen.  It doesn’t happen often, but then I have no deadlines or quotas to meet. That doesn’t mean that technique isn’t important  – it’s everything! – and then you can forget about it.

I was painting in a group a couple of years ago and using a bit of a technical wrinkle to create the highlights in a painting of a decaying leaf.  One of my class asked me what I was doing and so I explained what I’d been taught by our teacher who is always worth paying attention to. “So it’s just a trick” she said disparagingly.  “No it’s a trick but not just a trick, it’s a technique”. I think she was under the impression that learning technique somehow interferes with the artistic process.  You can’t blame her, art schools are full of lecturers who believe the same thing. It’s not a matter of being  – not everybody who wears a beret and smokes Gauloises is going to become Jean Paul Sartre! It’s a matter of sheer bloody minded doing.

So here I am at the moment full of aspirations that must be defended at all costs from the siren temptations of cooking, gardening and loving our family. About once a year I pull off something worth looking at, but the process is as slow as a sloth’s bowel movements and we need to eat. Today we went for a walk but mistimed the high tide due to my inability to read a 24 hour timetable.  So we went to a gap in the clifftop bushes and leaned on the fence gazing at the view. We agreed that you can do too much walking and so we thought we’d just lean on the fence and take in the smell and sound of the sea. Then we went to the shop and bought some cake.  A perfect day.